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Ready for the bleeding edge technology?

SRUTHI KRISHNAN

Research is central to a country’s economy and industry. But what defines a researcher and how can an environment be created for research?

Photo: Bijoy ghosh

Research must reach out: P. Anandan of Microsoft and (right) Prasad Ram of Google.

Organise the whole world’s information and make it accessible to everyone. Or, how can you use your mobile phone to sense the speed of the rushing traffic around you? Tasks that even Hercules may balk at are waiting to be solved and what’s more, the country needs such problem-solvers today.

To understand the current state of industry research in India and what it takes to become part of it, Education Plus spoke to P. Anandan, managing director of Microsoft Research India, and Prasad Ram, head of Google R&D, India.

“We need to increase our research capacity by ten-fold in order to compete in the new global economy. Besides academia, Indian industry has to increase its investment in research in order to meet the needs of the coming years,” says Dr. Anandan. “More specifically, in the field of technology, research is the logical next step.”

“India is now leading in the services sector. However, the natural growth path for our economy and industry is in R&D and basic research. This means that there will be increasing opportunities and industry needs for Ph.D researchers in India itself,” he says.

What it takes

According to Dr. Ram, the first step to solving a complex problem is in building a strong foundation. “We need people who are very inquisitive — who do not accept things the way they are and are willing to push boundaries.”

The foundation in core subjects such as mathematics and computer science is needed because of the nature of the problem. For example, consider the recent news archive search of Google that allows you to dig up data on the First War of Independence in 1857.

Copies of newspapers stored in microfiche, a storage device, have to be scanned, cleaned up. Having to distinguish between headlines and the text and pictures running across stories complicates the scanning process. When research is coupled with development, the user has to be taken into account. “You need to be able to identify a problem, solve it, build a product and launch it,” adds Dr. Ram.

The challenge

Perseverance and discipline are the characteristics that define researchers. Dr. Anandan says, “Researchers need to be self-motivated, be able to choose problems on their own, and work independently to achieve results. They will also have to collaborate with others.”

“The deadlines are not driven by external factors such as clients or the company they work for, but instead set on their own. Researchers measure their success by the quality and impact of their publications and citations. Hence, deadlines for papers submissions to conferences and journals provide a rhythm to their schedule.”

Career path

You need to have a Ph.D to join as a researcher. “However, people can start doing research even before starting or completing a PhD, and in exceptional cases become well- known researchers without ever getting a Ph.D,” says Dr. Anandan. The organisational set-up in a research environment is different from a conventional one. “Research centres tend to have a flat structure. Most researchers are actively working on individual projects either alone or in collaboration. His/her career development is less focussed on moving up a corporate hierarchical structure, but instead on becoming known as a well-known scientist and as a research leader in their peer community worldwide. Researchers typically tend to value their intellectual freedom and the ability to work on challenging problems over a sustained period of time.” Dr. Ram adds that there is a strong technology ladder. “You can stay techie upto a vice-president level.”

Road ahead

In India, engineering and computer science are natural growth areas, says Dr. Anandan. “Within computer science, India is strong in areas such as algorithms and databases. We will see growth in mobile systems, image processing, multi-lingual systems, software engineering research and other areas. In addition, we will also see computer science research being applied in other sciences as well as healthcare and education.”

To foster an environment of research, universities could “create open source solutions that solve fundamental computer science problems or create applications that users care about,” says Dr. Ram. He adds that the spirit is to challenge the status quo.

Dr. Anandan echoes his sentiments, “Research is the most satisfying career that one can have, and offers the greatest amount of personal and intellectual freedom.”

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